Poison by Bridget Zinn
Published: March 12, 2013, Disney Hyperion
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Library book
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How could Happy-Go-Lucky Fred ever understand what it was like to be born into a role you didn't want to play? A role people feared and despised? A role you weren't allowed to walk away from? Kyra'd had no choice but to run away.
With its beautiful, distinctive cover and a synopsis that promised a young heroine dealing with deception, betrayal, destruction, and assassination attempts, there was no doubt in my mind that Poison would eventually find its way into my hands. When the time came for me to pick it up, however, I found that my expectations did not quite match the contents between the covers. I find I always tend to begin reading a book with certain expectations (and more often than not they're met), so encountering a book quite different from what I expected was a surprise and a bit of a challenge at first. More lightheartedly humorous than darkly epic, Poison nonetheless was a pleasure to read.
Kyra is one of the most promising potioners in the Kingdom of Mohr, despite her relatively young age. Together with two young men, she is part of the Master Trio Potioners. By her status as a master potioner alone, Kyra is highly regarded within her kingdom. But she also happens to be best friends with the heir to the kingdom, Princess Ariana.
Life seemed to have been going pretty well for Kyra until she begins having visions of destruction and tries to assassinate Ariana, convinced it is the only way to stop her visions from coming true. But Kyra's poisoned dart misses its target, and she finds herself hunted by the entire kingdom. Kyra's journey to save the kingdom she loves becomes entwined with the necessity to understand and accept who she is, both on her own and in relation to others.
At its heart, Poison is the story of a friendship between two girls: Kyra, master potioner and our protagonist, and Ariana, princess of the Kingdom of Mohr and target of Kyra's assassination attempt. It's been four years since Kyra was invited by the queen's sister, the Duchess Genria, to socialize with the realm's sickly princess and teach her the art of makeup. Their relationship quickly escalated, and soon the two became practically inseparable. But much can change over the course of four years, and while Kyra herself finds success in creating potions, Ariana is the heir of the kingdom and is being forced into marriage for the sake of politics. The division in the lives of the two girls that is merely alluded to at first becomes clear cut when Kyra tries to assassinate Ariana, and, as the story continues, readers become privy to Kyra's intense struggle between her friendship for one and the safety of all.
In addition to establishing the identity of their friendship, Zinn focuses on the characterization of the two girls as individuals within Poison. Kyra is prickly and overly practical, but she's also determined, loyal, and a good person. Over the course of her short life she's had to make quite a few life-altering decisions, but she's always had her reasons. What makes Kyra really interesting and saves her from turning into simply another wholesome but bland heroine willing to fight for her beliefs is her unreliable narration. In comparison to Kyra, Ariana is likable and unconventional, if not quite as multifaceted. As much as Ariana could have benefited from a bit more fleshing out, this is ultimately Kyra's tale.
As an adult reading young adult fiction, I sometimes find myself having high expectations for the books I read, not always justifiably. Poison reads like a story intended for a younger young adult - or perhaps even middle grade - audience. Zinn's prose is rather simple and the book is reliant on a lot of coincidences and plot twists that many readers will be able to anticipate (except for this particularly oblivious reader). And nothing is wrong with any of that. It's just no longer quite what I look for in the books I read.
Somewhat more frustrating than the younger audience is the fact that Poison does not read much like a fantasy. Sure, there are elements of fantasy here and there - fantastical potions, witches, tracking pigs, a kingdom under threat - but Zinn does not really expand enough on her created world to make it feel fully organic and unique. Discussions of politics and Ariana's role as heir to the kingdom felt mentioned in passing, while the roles that Kyra and her fellow potioners occupy felt even more vague. And the place of magic within the context of this world was vaguest of all. Admittedly, the lack of worldbuilding is not something that will concern many readers; the story's plot and characterization work together quite well without understanding the intricacies of this world. Because the majority of the books I read are considered fantasies, however, I often find myself preferring more worldbuilding over less.
What Poison excels at is creating an action-packed, compulsively readable adventure tale. Despite the rather serious subject matter of Kyra's attack on Ariana and her visions of death and destruction, Zinn's story is told in such a way that readers cannot help cheering for Kyra as she undergoes one misadventure after another. Along for the journey is the almost too-perfect traveler Fred (whose rich interactions with Kyra redeem him from becoming a more stereotypical love interest cliche), his dog Langley, and Rosie, Kyra's tracking pig. Between those four characters, Zinn is able to craft a story full of hijinks and hilarity. Within the more facetious facade of the story, however, is a slightly more serious focus on how through her adventures and the people that she meets, Kyra is able to come to accept certain aspects about herself and explore the limits of what she'd do for the sake of others.
I'd like to take a moment to note that while Poison is Zinn's debut, it will also be her only novel, since she died from cancer in 2011. Poison is not a perfect novel, but it is a fun and entertaining debut, and it's sad to think that Zinn cannot see how readers are interacting with her book, and that readers will never be able to experience new adventures with Kyra and Ariana.